Fruit flies could hold the key to building resilience into autonomous robots
Professor Floris van Brueghel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to adapt autonomous robots to be as flexible as fruit flies.
Flexibility in autonomous robotic systems is critical, especially for robotic systems used in disaster response and surveillance, such as drones monitoring wildfires. Unfortunately, modern robots have difficulty responding to new environments or damage to their bodies during disaster response, Van Brueghel wrote in his grant application. In contrast, living systems are remarkably adept at rapidly adjusting their behavior to new situations thanks to redundancy and flexibility within their sensory and muscular control systems.
Scientific discoveries in fruit flies have helped shed light on how these insects achieve flexibility during flight, according to van Brueghel. His project will translate this emerging knowledge in insect neuroscience to develop more flexible robotic systems.
“This is a highly competitive award in a topic with tremendous potential impact, which also speaks to the research excellence of the researcher and mechanical engineer at UNR,” said Petros Voulgaris, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
This research aligns with the Unmanned Vehicles research pillar of the College of Engineering.
Engineering + flies
The intersection between engineering and flies has long been of interest to Van Brueghel.
“As an undergraduate, I conducted research where my main project was to design a flying and hovering object vaguely inspired by birds or insects,” he said. “Throughout this project, I realized that the hard part, and what was most interesting to me, was that once you have this mechanical thing that can fly, how do you control it? How do you make it go where you want it to go? If it breaks, how do you Adapt to that?
Van Brueghel says he’s studying how animals “can reuse or reprogram their sensorimotor systems ‘on the fly’ to quickly compensate for internal damage or external perturbations.”
Working with van Brueghel on the grant are experts in insect neuroscience, including Michael Dickinson, a professor of bioengineering and aeronautics at Caltech (and van Brueghel’s PhD advisor) as well as Yvette Fisher, an assistant professor of neurobiology at UCLA. Berkeley. Both have pioneered aspects of brain imaging in flies in terms of discoveries and technology in the field that van Brueghel is using in this research project. Also participating in the project: Bing Broughton, assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington, who brings her expertise in computational neuroscience.
The importance of flies in the world of engineering and neuroscience stems from the combination of their sophisticated behavior and their brains that are numerically simple enough to study in detail. This “mild” combination makes it possible to distill the properties of its neural processing into basic engineering principles that can be applied to robotic systems, Van Brueghel said.
As part of the grant, middle school, high school and college students will be offered research experiences to participate in neuroscience and robotics research. Van Breugel and his team will also develop open source content to help provide neuroscience fluency to engineering students. This is consistent with the operational pillar of student engagement in the College of Engineering.